A 21st Century Approach To Diversity

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 00:00

Editor: What is your background in diversity?

Harris: I was fortunate to have mentorship early in my career from people who took a sincere interest in my professional development. I have attempted to extend this same commitment to others. I started my legal career in eastern Washington where I was the first African American lawyer hired by my law firm. I practiced law for several years before finding my way to Williams Kastner.

One of the many things that first attracted me to Williams Kastner was its leadership on the issue of diversity. I knew this firm valued diversity and had an ongoing commitment to diversity and was an established leader in this area in the community. I believe our commitment to diversity challenged peer firms in the region to match our efforts - the entire legal community has benefited as a result of our firm's leadership on this issue.

Editor: What does diversity mean for a law firm? Why is it important for a law firm to be diverse?

Harris: In a broad sense I think diversity for a law firm means being the best that the firm can possibly be. A diverse firm is a firm of lawyers and staff who are reflective of the clients and the communities that the law firm serves. A successful firm is one that is diverse in terms of ethnicity, economic background, gender, age, national origin and sexual orientation. Diversity extends far beyond skin color.

Law firms should try to achieve diversity because, a) it's the right thing to do and, b) it makes good business sense. There is both a human and business imperative to pursue and achieve diversity. I think there has been a consensus for some time that achieving diversity speaks to our sense of fairness and equality on a human level. The business benefit of diversity did not become apparent until several years ago. Many firms are now finding that clients are insisting that their outside counsel have diverse lawyers. In fact, it is not uncommon these days for corporate and public sector clients to conduct periodic diversity audits of outside firms - requiring them to specify, among other things, the number of diverse lawyers working on each of their files. These clients are sending a clear message - diversify or lose our business.

Editor: Interesting that you've mentioned economic backgrounds, which is usually not mentioned when talking about diversity. Why do you include that?

Harris: People form the basis for a firm's culture. A diverse workforce composed of people representing different economic vantage points brings great value to a firm. When you look at the variety of clients and businesses which law firms serve, you can see the way our world has changed. Firms serve global clients who represent a wide and diverse palette of ethnic and economic backgrounds. An economic vantage point gives individuals a particular and distinct perspective - one which often influences an individual's approach to business strategy and problem solving. A workforce comprised of individuals representing a variety of economic backgrounds will offer a firm or employer a broader and more effective approach to finding solutions.

In my experience, an individual from an economically disadvantaged background will be more inclined to be creative and take a different approach to something like building a client base. These individuals aren't privy to the connections and networking opportunities that come from attending an elite prep school or college. In order to develop and build a client base for their legal practice, they might target more junior-level managers and executives and, often, more diligently. I find this drive lacking in firms.

Editor: How can law firms create and foster diversity?

Harris: A firm should begin by conducting what I call an earnest self-assessment, a self-imposed diversity audit, and it has to be honest regarding the findings. You cannot address a problem unless you are willing to admit a problem exists. Only then can you develop an objective and talk about how to achieve it. It is critical to secure buy-in from the firm leadership. Diversity has to become an integral part of the firm's structure and culture. It needs to become a core component of your firm's DNA.

Once you establish this platform, you have to reach outside your firm and focus your efforts on recruiting. Leverage existing resources to find lawyers from different backgrounds. These may include outreach to law school student organizations as well as state and local bar organizations with diversity programs. Another thing you can do on an informal basis is to make inquiries of diverse lawyers within your own network.

You also need to recognize that a commitment to diversity does not end with achieving diverse statistics. You need to create an inclusive culture in your firm that embraces and welcomes all staff and lawyers, offering the same opportunity for success to everyone.

Editor: How can you sustain diversity?

Harris: Hiring qualified, diverse attorneys is the easy part, but keeping them takes planning, effort and commitment. Firms have to treat diversity as an ongoing endeavor. It's more than making a few diverse hires and then thinking the job is done. You must be patient and allow meaningful personal relationships to develop. Evaluate your mentoring opportunities. Encourage and reward mentoring in your firm. Keep in mind, we are, at our core, relational - whether a person feels valued by an organization, whether they feel there is a place for them depends on the relationships that they develop. Diverse lawyers need to be encouraged to develop meaningful relationships with more experienced lawyers and with peers and colleagues. Provide an avenue in which they can do this and increase their level of professional satisfaction.

When you are looking to diversify your organization, you have to recognize that young lawyers from diverse backgrounds, like other lawyers, must be mentored and afforded the opportunities to be successful. They must be rewarded for a good work-product, given the opportunity to contribute, and shown how to hone and develop their legal skills. Even small investments in these individuals can pay enormous dividends for your firm down the road.

In addition, we increasingly find that civic responsibility and community contribution are very important to diverse candidates and attorneys. Many seek the opportunity to work for a firm that encourages and rewards pro bono and other civic-minded work. By creating this environment, firms not only attract the desired candidates and retain them but they also bring great value to our communities.

Editor: Your firm seems to have a number of outreach programs with a focus on minorities.

Harris: There are two flagship outreach programs in the Pacific Northwest where we focus our energies. The first is the Puget Sound Area Minority Clerkship Program. We were a co-founder of this program back in 1981. In this program, local firms and legal departments provide clerkships to minority first-year lawyers from the region's two law schools - Seattle University and the University of Washington Law School. It has been extremely successful. One of the program's participants is now a judge.

The second program is the Northwest Minority Job Fair that was established back in 1986; Williams Kastner has participated in it every year since its inception. We hosted the program in our offices last year. This program has a broader focus and features more than 50 participating law schools from around the country with an objective of matching minority candidates with hiring firms and corporations.

These are two of our more visible programs. In addition to these, we actively engage in and support a wide number of community endeavors which foster diversity. Our attorneys are leaders in many of the local and statewide minority bar organizations.

Editor: How can a firm situated in an area of the country where the general population does not reflect diversity attract minorities?

Harris: This is a national challenge shared by many regional and smaller market firms. In these situations, you have to be more creative and help develop a diverse talent pool. For awhile, a lot of law firms were just trying to attract diverse students who were either recent graduates or in their third year of law school - we were all competing for the same limited number of people. We looked for ways to improve our efforts and to help develop a larger talent pool. My firm now partners not only with law schools but with undergraduate colleges and even high schools and other community organizations.

We have several attorneys active in youth organizations and who speak at local high schools where they serve as role models - seeding the interest in the legal profession for young people. We attempt to show these young people what it means to be a lawyer and how to prepare for law school. This kind of outreach is imperative to growing the talent pool.

Editor: Has the profession made progress?

Harris: Yes and no. As an example, current statistics show roughly half of all law school graduates are female - this is progress. However, we also know that many women are leaving the profession in alarming numbers. We need to re-engineer the attorney career model to be attractive to women in the 21st century. The last century's model doesn't work.

Jessie L. Harris is a Member in the Seattle office of Williams Kastner. He concentrates his practice on civil litigation related to product liability, employment and discrimination, insurance and commercial issues. He was named to the Rising Stars list by Washington Law & Politics magazine from 2001 to 2004, and again in 2008 and 2009.

Please email the interviewee at jharris@williamskastner.com with questions about this interview.